”Holly DoronAssociate | Architect
Since my first time at Impact Hub Birmingham for Co.Lab Dudley’s Food for Thought in April 2018, I’ve been on a journey of conversations around communities, participation, empowerment, and system change. After Co.Lab’s talk, I pondered about how projects that involve altering and creating buildings could help to encourage participatory cultures that are being nurtured in places like Gather Dudley.
When particular projects go forward, like a church wanting to adapt a space for the wider community, or a charity wanting to expand, they can get funding to involve the wider community in the briefing and design process. I feel lucky to be involved in these kinds of projects, because, when I talk about these with others, it turns out these projects are considered to be a niche thing.
But why is it a niche thing for people to be meaningfully involved in changes to places they live, work or play?
Changing the built environment involves long timescales, with most value placed on the product of a building in its state at completion. After the opening night, and years of occupation and maintenance, the building can begin to decline in its usefulness and value, which leads to the next project of making it its best again through a refurbishment or even knocking it down and starting again. It’s a cycle.
I had a conversation with Andy Reeve who made the really interesting point that the process of design and construction can be seen as managing risk up until a building is completed, and involving more people in this process increases this risk, so why would you?
The only obligatory moments of citizen engagement are when the planning department writes letters to local residents and businesses to inform them of planning applications in their immediate area and invite them to write in with their feedback.
When a land-owner does decide to invest in community engagement activities, it’s usually to get support for their planning application, or to attract users or tenants for the completed building.
Any moment of involvement with the end building users (if you know who they are) or the wider community, is mostly just informing rather than involving; harvesting opinions on what already will be. The value of investment in community involvement comes down to whether it will mitigate risk or not.
So why should land owners invest in involving people when they plan to make changes to their built environment?
Participatory City has done incredible research into how civic and communal activities improve wellbeing, lower crime, stimulate economic growth (see ‘Designed to Scale’ or the ‘Illustrated Guide to Participatory City’). Basically, people getting involved with stuff has good effects.
I spoke to Laura Billings who was involved in the early research behind Participatory City, and we discussed how there’s a lack of space for communal activities in developments; the social infrastructure is missing. If there are communal spaces, the key is often given to someone and the space is locked up in fear that the place will get vandalised. There’s a lack of trust.
If people are involved earlier and throughout a project, there’s a chance over time to develop trust and relationships with the people who will or already care for these places. There’s a chance to lengthen the cycle of something being built, being cared for, and adapted by the people using it.
Moments of participation can be created throughout the process, particularly for third sector projects where they have access to funding for community engagement. But why is meaningful involvement of people in changes to places they live, work or play limited to these funded projects?
People can have an impact on what the final outcome is, but if the project is delayed or stopped, the value of this process becomes redundant, and people can be left disheartened and feel less inclined to get involved with other projects.
What if more value was placed on the process (briefing, designing, making) than the product (the building)?
What if people got excited about the potential for changes in an area, but even more excited about the process as an opportunity to explore ideas, build networks and develop skills?
‘This will be a great opportunity to catch up with ___ and find out how their enterprise is developing. I could bring ___ along to introduce them’, or;
‘I found out about Trade School last time someone thought of building something, I wonder what I’ll learn this time?’, or;
‘It’s exciting someone is wanting to do something with that site, I wonder if I could offer a carpentry prototyping workshop in the technical design stage?’
What if the standard process of briefing and designing changes in the urban environment could contribute to existing participatory initiatives in neighbourhoods, or help to generate some if there aren’t any?
What if people and organisations felt more comfortable talking about failed transitionary projects, about the ideas and needs unearthed from the process, about the failures lessons learnt, and shared these with others to help the inception or process of future projects?
What if landowners weighed the risk and cost of involving more people in this process against the risk and cost if they don’t?
What if this was a self-sufficient model that everyone would want to invest in, whether they’re creating a community kitchen, an office, or an industrial warehouse?
I’m not looking for a solution, more of an understanding of the systems influencing the problem. The APEC team have been exploring how we can introduce moments of participation and trust-building in our everyday practice, showing landowners what their shared problems are with other citizens, and what is achievable in their vision and resources, inspiring citizens to make their own impact, speaking to funders, decision makers and policy makers on what could be possible in making citizen empowerment the basis of changes in the urban environment.
My learning marathon experience so far has not been focusing on having a physical output at the end, or feeling the need to solve anything within 6 months. If anything, I’ve just generated countless more learning questions. The Learning Marathon, for me, has been about having conversations. The value in speaking to people outside of my discipline and research area has been paramount to widening my view and seeing different perspectives of an incredibly complex system.
The next step is to map these conversations within the system…
This blog is part 4 of a series on Holly’s Learning Marathon, a 6 month peer-led radical learning model facilitated by social enterprise, Enrol Yourself.